posted on 24 February 2016
by Robert Rapier, Investing Daily
Investing Daily Article of the Week
Dealing with rainy days and nighttime has long been a challenge for solar energy.
But a series of breakthroughs now make it possible to continue generating power right through a string of cloudy days.
One of these innovations is already in use: "concentrated solar power," or CSP, a concept that goes back to the Punic Wars of around 200 B.C.
According to ancient accounts, the Greek inventor Archimedes used the reflective power of bronze shields (some say they were giant mirrors) to set Roman ships ablaze while saving the besieged city of Syracuse.
To this day, that story has its corps of believers and disbelievers who conduct bizarre experiments to either prove or disprove the tale.
But concentrated solar power, I can assure you, is for real...and working on a scale Archimedes couldn't imagine.
Here's how it works...
CSP uses curved mirrors to heat water and produce steam to drive turbines. The mirrors magnify the sun's energy and track the sun as its position changes throughout the day.
Not only can a CSP solar power plant generate the same amount of electricity as the average coal-fired plant... it can also store electricity to use later.
Here's what a CSP system with heat storage capability looks like:
These U-shaped mirrors heat a fluid to about 750°F to generate steam, which is fed to turbines that produce electricity. The fluid is then recirculated into the system for reuse.
Now the big breakthrough: The system can also send molten salt, which is an excellent retainer of heat, to thermal storage tanks. The ultra-hot salt can run the plant when the sun isn't shining.
Other CSP storage systems are beginning to use sand - which can be heated to higher temperatures than salt.
It all amounts to one thing.
Cheap, reliable, 24/7 solar electric power.
I'm convinced that CSP technology will help revolutionize the future of solar energy around the world.
But it's just one of the amazing developments that are accelerating solar's inevitable ascent to the energy throne.
Another is photovoltaic (PV) technology - on a scale never achieved before.
We've all seen PV on a small scale - usually arrays of solar panels on rooftops or outside homes and businesses. In PV, the solar panels convert sunlight directly into electricity via semiconductors.
But PV technology is also making the leap to utility-scale, employing massive fields of panels covering hundreds or even thousands of acres.
To put this in perspective, a typical coal-fired power plant generates 500 megawatts (MW) of electricity - an amount that's long been far beyond the capability of solar power installations.
One company I'm following has already built two 550-MW solar projects in California.
These are among the largest PV power plants in the world, generating just as much electricity as an average coal-fired plant.
Here's a look at the one of the projects...
It covers 3,500 acres, and will gather energy from 8.8 million thin-film solar modules, every single one made and sold by this company.
Now, this is a true utility-scale powerhouse - like the big coal- and gas-fired plants you're used to seeing.
It will provide enough electricity for more than 160,000 homes - about 400,000 people - equal to a city the size of Oakland, California.
And the plant is already online. It's estimated that the installation displaces approximately 377,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide - equal to taking 73,000 cars off the road.
None of this is lost on utilities. Many of them are partnering with solar companies to expand the use of solar-generated power at commercial levels.
And with today's new solar systems any excess electricity generated from them goes back to the grid.
It's like watching the utility meter run backward! See for yourself.
How to invest in these breakthroughs today
Solar use, as you can see, continues on its steeply rising trajectory - as prices sharply drop.
Through the first half of last year, solar accounted for more than 50% of all new electric generating capacity - topping all other energy technologies.
In a nutshell, utilities already see the light - and their future.
So do a group of recognizable billionaire investors who have piled into select solar stocks recently.
Watch this presentation now to learn more about the "solar super trend", the billionaires investing in it, and my favorite ideas for capitalizing on it's inevitable future.
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